“THERE’S NO THROUGH TRAIL” —HAN-SHAN, TRANSLATED BY GARY SNYDER
/ The Sweeter Cool of Darkness

The Sweeter Cool of Darkness

by Matthew Wimberley

Introduction to Night Swimming, Liz Robbins’ new collection of poems, which was the winner of the 2023 Cold Mountain Book Contest and published by Cold Mountain Review in Dec 2023.

The tradition of persona long predates the written word. Ed Hirsch writes that “The concept of persona originates in magical thinking, in archaic rituals where masks are independent beings that possess the ones who assume them.” With that kind of historical weight, it is no wonder that so many collections of poetry avoid the practice altogether, allowing instead for the “I” in the poem to be exactly that, the poet. 

In order to pick up these masks, the poet must push against the forces of the self and inhabit the existence of another. Maybe this is why contemporary works of persona often focus on a single voice, or else persona is used strictly as a formal exercise in an otherwise so called “formless” collection. To work in persona is to work in a form which seeks to offer new possibilities in the exploration of humanity. As a sonnet might act as a mechanism of control in a chaotic world, persona supposes a number of conditions that when adhered to offer a similar kind of structure in confronting chaos and uncertainty. Because of the risk and the transference persona, when rendered with care, becomes an exercise not in othering, not in illusion, but in humanizing. 

One difficulty with persona comes by way of this possessing. To inhabit authentically the lives of others is not only to align oneself with a myriad of perspectives and to simply “see the world” through these lenses but to feel it. To write with another’s voice is to carry not only the joys but also the wounds of another’s life. To attempt to see it completely. This is what is risked in poems that inhabit being in the world outside of the self. Persona can be used to dissimulate and to distance as easy as it can be used to bring one as close to experience as possible. In short, this style of poetry is a great responsibility.  The question the poet Rumi asks, “Who says words with my mouth” must be on the mind of anyone attempting to write in persona.

 This brings us to another difficulty, that of language. The questions of translating language, let alone another existence entirely have led me to consider the task of persona, when done well, to be some of the most arduous work I can imagine and some of the most enchanted. The reward for this work is to show the reader the world—not one hidden from us, but one that we live in where we are made to recognize truths we have not needed to know. 

And while the subjects of the poems in Night Swimming often confront the ways violence is enacted on women in order to make apparent what has been overlooked—the undercurrent of masculinity in American society and sexualized violence—it is not cruelty and hopelessness alone that I find here, but also the forces that sustain us: love, community, and promise. If the work of persona can be extended, it is shown here not only in how it takes up the mask but in how it unmasks, how it demonstrates the fragility of patriarchy by revealing the insecurities in the system. 

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Liz Robbins’ poems ask us to pick up the masks of her making, or perhaps her finding, and enter our own world with a new vision. This book confronts the realities in a world where women are regularly silenced and erased. The voices Robbins works through range from innocence to guilt in both the legal and moral senses, where the realities of life under patriarchy are revealed through heart-breaking, and at times disturbing poems. Which is part of the work. We should be disturbed. The obsession with violence as tied to masculinity is brought into the light again and again and while it is easy to recognize the way individuals commit violence, Night Swimming forces one to recognize the way systems of oppression perpetuate suffering. 

  If Larry Levis says that the job of the poet is to gaze outward, to notice, then this collection asks us to look out from these various lives: a mother ferrying her child to safety across the desert, women who are serial killers, a truck driver who confronts herself in the face of a victim of violent crime. And, to look on with the knowledge that innocence is brief. In one poem, two young girls receive an instruction manual against endangerment. It is not that these aphorisms are extraordinary which shakes us, but that they are not.  In another, the speaker admits: 

I wanted the life in picture
books—castles and riches, talking frogs, perfect love— 
what I knew wasn’t true, yet lodged in my head. 

Again and again, Robbins examines the realities of being a woman in a culture obsessed with violence, one where a child must not look to fairy tales because the truth bears no resemblance. At the same time, these poems do not deny happiness through stereotypes, but make real the voices that speak through the poems. If there is fear demonstrated here, it is as much the fear of men losing power and the way that fear constructs acts of evil that the poet is indicting. 

Robbins’ work in this collection is not only to explore inhumanity, but to do the difficult thing which is to subvert it and complicate it through intimate and shared experiences. Throughout these poems, she demonstrates the possibilities of persona for connecting us in an ever more atomized world and importantly for empowerment.

This connectivity exists because of a deep investigation of the interior self, the wreckage and triumphs there which translate outward. This is the difficult work a poet undertakes in writing persona. When accomplished the poet might substitute the self for another at will and the distinction between the two erodes. Is this persona or the self? That is the ovation one gets not through trickery but through disillusion, through holding back the veil of language to see the real. Here, there is no trick. Instead, what’s found is the realized poem aligning the personal with the outside person, giving dignity to both in equal measures. 

As the book progresses Robbins’ attention to the ordinary becomes inescapable and visceral as it is mirrored with the earth shattering. Young girls talking to one another contrast the violence ahead, both endured and committed for the sake here of survival. The textures of noticing and the expectation “of relief” established with the book’s epigraph, is at once stunning and obvious. It is the unknown that induces anxiety and through the confrontation with horrors such as the way desire becomes a mechanism of suffering at the hands of men, Robbins allows counter narratives to patriarchal power to find voice. The poems here do not attempt to bring relief passively, but to gaze intently at the world as if diagnosing, in Whitman’s words, “some deep disease”. Through the various lenses of the poems Robbins confronts a myriad litany of the inhumane. Even when writing from the voice of female serial killers, the reader is asked to consider the circumstances which have perpetuated violence. 

At the heart of this collection there is the blossoming of survival and of a light that both reveals and holds the dark. Here, poetry acts as a way into various lives and asks not for pity but for an excavation of resilience and a reclamation of power. Adrienne Rich writes of Marie Curie that she denied that “her wounds came from the same source as her power”. Liz Robbins has written a book which does not deny the wounds made evident here but confronts them in order to draw power and a way to not simply heal but to transform.

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.